By DONNA CASSATA
WASHINGTON — Rep. Trey Gowdy, the Republicans' newest point man on the Benghazi attack, is a seasoned prosecutor determined to apply his well-honed courtroom skills to an election-year examination of the Obama administration's actions.
Tapped by House Speaker John Boehner, the two-term South Carolina congressman will lead a special select committee investigating the chaotic night of Sept. 11, 2012, when extremists attacked the U.S. diplomatic outpost in Libya, killing Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
Multiple independent and bipartisan investigations have faulted the State Department for inadequate security at the mission and the military's lack of assets in the region. Yet the inquiries have failed to quiet the much-publicized aftermath, with Republicans vehemently insisting that the administration sought to downplay a terror attack just weeks before the presidential election.
Two years later, Benghazi resonates with Republicans, who demand accountability from Obama, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and other administration officials. It remains a rallying cry with conservatives whose votes are crucial to the GOP in November's historically low-turnout midterm elections.
Republicans are expected to force a vote Thursday to establish the select committee despite Democratic objections that it's unnecessary. It remains to be seen whether Democrats decide to boycott the panel.
Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi and whip Steny Hoyer sent Boehner a letter accusing House Republicans of "extreme and counter-productive partisanship" in the investigation. They say "a fundamentally different approach" is needed for a select committee, including equal representation on the committee.
"There will be people critical of the process and the results no matter what," Gowdy said in an interview. "That's not the jury. That is not the audience. The jury is reasonable-minded, open-minded people who say, 'Show me a fair process, let me draw my conclusions and let's finally, in the words of the speaker, get to the bottom of what happened in Benghazi.'"
Gowdy, 49, is a hard-charging conservative who has challenged the administration on the botched "Fast and Furious" gun-smuggling operation and the Internal Revenue Service's scrutiny of tea party groups' applications for tax-exempt status. He won wide acclaim from the right for his impassioned, five-minute House floor speech last month on ensuring that the president enforces the nation's laws.
"The House of Representatives does not exist to pass suggestions. We do not exist to pass ideas," Gowdy said to applause and cheers. "We make law."
A website promoting Trey Gowdy for president in 2016 spotlights the speech as well as a video of Gowdy cartwheeling, boogying and "Dancing with the Spartanburg Stars," moves he made before his legislative career to raise money for breast cancer research.
To the presidential talk, Gowdy jokingly asked, "What country?" and said he has no interest in higher office, preferring the courtroom to politics.
"I would love to be back in a system where there are rules and there is a referee and we work for a blindfolded woman with a set of scales," Gowdy said.
A fellow South Carolina Republican, Sen. Lindsey Graham, called Gowdy "well-respected" and "tenacious."
Gowdy spent six years as a prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney's Office in Greenville, South Carolina, handling murder, drug and robbery cases. He tried cases that previously ended in a hung jury and, in describing his approach, suggested the traits he'll likely employ in getting many Americans to reconsider the events of Benghazi.
"I try to think like a juror, like someone who's been called to observe a trial or serve on a jury," Gowdy said. "What do I want to know and who do I want to hear from? My mind works chronologically and so I necessarily assume that other people's do, too. It's not like the 'Odyssey,' where your start in the middle and then go backward and forward."
He and his wife, Terri, have a son, Watson, and a daughter, Abigail. They have three dogs — Judge, Jury and Bailiff.
After years as a prosecutor and serving as solicitor for Spartanburg and Cherokee counties, Gowdy challenged Republican Rep. Bob Inglis in the 2010 primary, targeting the pragmatic incumbent for his work in steering projects to the northwest district as a member of the Appropriations Committee.
Gowdy forced a runoff, won handily and then rode the 2010 tea party wave into the House.
Boehner's selection of Gowdy leaves Rep. Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, to continue to pursue his Benghazi probe, although the move eclipses the relentless California Republican. Issa was a frequent target of fact-checkers for his Benghazi claims, and last week his star witness' testimony drew an unusual rebuke from another House Republican chairman.
Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., who was elected to the House with Gowdy, said his former colleague is "looking for the truth. And he will either find it or say he didn't."
Scott, who dines with Gowdy each week, said the congressman would make a "great federal judge."
"That's my goal for him," Scott said. "Get him out of here as soon as possible."